Simon Midgley looks at the new face of England's youth service and finds out how it fits into Labour's policies for tackling social exclusion.
The Connexions youth service being set up in England at the moment is a classic example of Labour's passion for "joined-up thinking" and "holistic solutions". Its impetus came from the Social Exclusion Unit's Bridging the Gap report two years ago, which discovered that 161,000 young people aged 16 and 17 were missing out on education, training and work after leaving school.
Connexions was conceived as a way of giving the disengaged - including the homeless and the abused, possibly flirting with drugs and crime - a one-shop, first-stop service. Instead of 25 agencies asking a young person the same 30 questions, a personal adviser will ask them and then co-ordinate teams from support agencies, such as the youth, careers and social services, while they assess the client's needs.
By March, some 1,500 advisers will have been trained. Those wishing to help with the most complex problems will need to achieve a new qualification, the Diploma for Personal Advisers.
Although the scheme was initially targeted at disaffected teenagers, it has broadened into a universal one for all 13- to 19-year-olds and will differentiate according to individual needs, advising on anything from careers and universities to homelessness and drug abuse. Broadly speaking, the goal is to raise young people's aspirations and to remove obstacles to learning for those most at risk of dropping out.
From this autumn a Connexions card with a microchip in it will be available to everyone aged 16 to 19. This will enable the service to know when, for instance, a youngster is not in school, college or training when they should be.
It is anticipated that at least 85 per cent of young people will call on Connexions for careers advice at 16. Guidance will also be available outside traditional office hours.
Since April, 12 Connexions partnerships - Jin part, developed by young people themselves - have been in operation and four more are due to start up this autumn. The plan is to have 47 of them across England by 2003.
Connexions chief executive Anne Weinstock emphasises that outreach work is essential, since 4,000 of the 150,000 contacts made with young people since April have taken place in the community at large.
"If you take youngsters who go truant, get into trouble with the law, are expelled from school, get into youth custody and then into drugs, it's a cycle," she says. "If you can start nipping problems in the bud at the age of 13, you can keep more youngsters in school and cut the cost of youngsters getting involved in the criminal justice system.
"The important thing about going to see the personal adviser is that nobody knows whether you are going because you are having a smear test, a careers guidance interview or because you are pregnant."
Although it is too early to judge the success of the scheme in any authority, data from Devon and Cornwall appears to show that pupils' exam results are improving, teenage mothers are returning to education and young offenders are being fast-tracked into training.